PROVIDENCE — Progressive Democrats are unlikely to “win the whole [expletive] State House” – the goal set by gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown in his campaign kickoff video one year ago.
Polls show Brown running fourth in Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. And after talking about fielding 50 candidates, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative ended up with 29 candidates on the ballot, including 27 General Assembly candidates.
But progressive activists say they are expecting to gain ground in Tuesday’s General Assembly primaries, building on their gains in the House and Senate during the 2018 and 2020 elections cycles. And seismic changes could occur if House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi or Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio get knocked off in their districts.
“I think both Ruggerio and Shekarchi are going to have more-progressive caucuses come the next session, and that matters,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, New England regional director of the Working Families Party. “It will matter in the kind of pressure they get in their own chambers and the way they set their priorities.”
While Ruggerio and Shekarchi are facing progressive challengers, some progressive incumbents, such as Senators Tiara Mack and Samuel W. Bell and Representative Brandon C. Potter, are facing primaries of their own.
“We definitely have some ground to defend,” Hollister Isman said. “But even so, I think you will see progressive challengers will gain ground and progressive incumbents will defend their ground.”
Brown said 10 Rhode Island Political Cooperative candidates won races in 2020, and that had an impact on legislative priorities.
“That was our first cycle, and we’ve got dozens of candidates running this time, including people challenging members of the leadership,” he said. “We are making a big push on some really pivotal races, in addition to getting real numbers that can get us a majority.”
But does he still expect to “win the whole [expletive] State House”?
“Yeah,” he said.
Providence College political science Professor Adam S. Myers said progressives remain “a long way away from Matt Brown’s goal.” But he said progressives could build on their recent gains in Tuesday’s primaries.
While the outcome of the governor’s race and other statewide contests have clear importance, Myers said the the aggregate outcome of General Assembly races is particularly important in a state such as Rhode Island, which historically has had a powerful state legislature in comparison to the governor’s office.
So Myers said he will be tracking who wins the contests between “progressive insurgents” and more “mainstream Democrats” on Tuesday. And he will be keeping a close eye on whether any legislative leaders lose their primaries. “The old saying that the House Speaker is the most powerful person in Rhode Island politics still applies,” he said.
Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, is facing a challenge from Jacqueline Anderson, who is backed by the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, in House District 23.
And Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, is again facing a challenge from Lenny Cioe, who also is backed by the Political Cooperative, and Stephen G. Tocco, in Senate District 4.
Myers said there is no polling data to gauge how many progressive candidates might win challenges on Tuesday. But he said progressive candidates could shape the policy agenda for the next General Assembly session.
For example, he said the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade “provides more energy for progressives” during this election cycle.
The high court ruling came down one day after the General Assembly wrapped up this year’s legislative session, and despite calls to reconvene, the House and Senate did not come back for a special fall session to vote on the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would provide for abortion coverage in the health insurance of Medicaid recipients and state employees.
The Equality in Abortion Coverage Act is bound to be a progressive priority in the next legislative session, Myers said. While Shekarchi has supported abortion rights, Ruggerio has not, and if Ruggerio loses on Tuesday, it’s likely the next Senate president would favor expanding abortion access, he said.
Rhode Island did pass the 2019 Reproductive Privacy Act, aimed at protecting abortion rights. But Myers said, “Other blue states have moved to expand abortion access to a much larger degree that we have here, and clearly a big part of the reason is leadership in the legislature has historically been composed of pro-life Democrats.”
If progressives gain ground on Tuesday, Myers expects them to also pursue legislation to address climate change, provide more affordable housing, and raise the top marginal income tax rate on the richest Rhode Islanders.
The Political Cooperative is backing 14 candidates for the 75-member House of Representatives and 13 candidates for the 38-member Senate. Winning Senate seats gives progressive a “bigger bang for the buck,” Myers said, and that could make it easier to take control of the Senate leadership.
But he noted that progressives are playing defense as well as offense on Tuesday.
For example, Senator Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat and a co-founder of the Political Cooperative, is facing another matchup against former Senator Mark P. McKenney in Senate District 23.
But another Political Cooperative co-founder, Jennifer T. Rourke, is running in a Democratic primary against Michael C. Carreiro for the Senate District 22 seat that Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, is vacating after 28 years in office.
Also, Myers noted that Tuesday’s primaries will include candidates who would make history if they are elected.
Rhode Island has never elected a state legislator who identified as Asian American. But three Asian American women are running in state Senate primaries Tuesday — Robin Xiong of Providence in Senate District 3, Linda Ujifusa of Portsmouth in Senate District 11, and Victoria Gu of a Charlestown in Senate District 38. And another Asian American candidate, Giang “Jenny” Bui of West Greenwich is running in the general election for the Senate District 21 seat held by Senator Gordon Rogers, a Foster Republican.
Rhode Island has never elected a transgender Assembly member. But three transgender candidates are running in Tuesday’s Democratic primaries — the Rev. Donnie Anderson of Providence in Senate District 1, Damián Lima of Providence in House District 6, and Giona Picheco of Cranston in House District 14.
While many voters are preparing to go to the polls Tuesday, thousands of Rhode Islanders have already cast their ballots.
As of Friday, the secretary of state’s turnout tracker showed that 11,972 voters had cast ballots in early voting, and another 12,323 had cast mail ballots. That total of 24,294 represents a turnout of 3 percent.
Myers predicted the turnout will be higher than the 2018 midterm primaries because Rhode Island now offers more early voting and mail ballot options. But in any case, he noted that in this state dominated by Democrats, “the primary is often the most important election.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.